Russian Dolls: The Queens Taking on the Underground Drag Race
Despite all that's against them, the Drag Race Queens of Russia have found a way to express themselves, on the underground online scene.
The atmosphere of a St Petersburg gay bar is hard to describe. It’s something of a mix between a vintage Bacardi advert and a 1920’s speakeasy. Lip-syncers flit deftly between the hits of Lady Gaga and Soviet pop icon Alla Pugacheva, the dancefloor is hazy and intimate, the vodka-mixers liberal and generous. Yet alert simmers behind the strobe lights, the tacit awareness that a swiftly-passed bill could at any moment render its patrons de-facto criminals.
It was in such a bar, huddled with a flock of vodka-spiced drag queens, that I was drawn into lively speculation around the cast of the then-upcoming Drag Race UK. The sole native Brit, I was to be the oracle: Blu Hydrangea is clearly the look queen, but Baga Chipz will bring the personality, right? (erm… I guess?); British drag is just more irreverent, isn’t it? (I… suppose, in some ways?). Just a few missed references from death by imposter syndrome, I was saved by interjection from behind the bar – “so then, devochki, how long before Drag Race Russia?”. A patchwork of throaty chuffs and falsetto cackles rang out in reply. The queen to my right flicked back her wig and spun around, a glint in her eye; “What do you mean?”, she winked, “We’re already on Season Three!”.
The sad irony of this statement is self-evident. Since the passing of 2013’s infamous Gay Propaganda bill, queer expression in Russia has been exiled to the cultural peripheries, even tangential suggestions of ‘non-traditional’ sexuality locked behind online age-gates and glaring 18+ warnings. Against such an unwelcoming backdrop, one could be forgiven for thinking there is no ‘drag scene’ in Russia, a misconception propagated, ironically, by many Russians themselves. A common sentiment is that such things are somehow inherently ‘un-Russian’; that the recent bloom of a native drag underground is in fact the insurgent product of a new, rainbow-coloured brand of US cultural imperialism. Of course, not only is this a rather meaningless proposition, it’s also blatantly untrue: a little historical digging reveals clandestine drag balls in revolutionary St Petersburg and high-profile drag artists such as Zaza Napoli and Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe making waves in the post-Soviet world long before the influence of RuPaul. The question is not when drag culture will ‘reach’ Russia, but when the nation’s home-grown kings, queens and everything-in-betweens will be afforded the wider spotlight they deserve.
In the meantime, with a prime-time slot far beyond the horizon, a few enterprising fans have taken matters into their own hands. The aforementioned ‘Season Three’ was that of Home Drag Race, a web-series created by Ilya Lagerfeld and published on social network VKontake. Now in its fourth season, the show presents itself as a near beat-for-beat homage to RuPaul’s ubiquitous original. The US series’ recognisable typeface, music and editing style are faithfully reproduced and the format is near identical; in each season, a rag-tag group of amateur and professional drag artists progress through weekly challenges, designed to showcase their trademark charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Challenges range from piecing together high-fashion looks from cardboard and newspaper to recreating iconic Eurovision performances, and, as per Drag Race, each episode ends with a gloriously lo-fi lip sync showdown to determine who will live to drag another day. A few understandable shortcuts have been made along the way. The glossy workroom is swapped out for a cardboard runway along which contestants don’t strut so much as bob in awkward cut-out animation, and without the luxury of a centralised studio, queens respond to challenges at home, submitting photos and videos to be edited into the final product. The result is a surprising visual variety; videos contributed for each challenge vary both in style and production quality, reflective of each queen’s personal artistic whims and access to filming and editing equipment. Curating the whole affair is hostess RuBitch, a paper facsimile of RuPaul himself, who leads the jury and narrates each challenge in a scratchy, affected squawk.
Yet the loving visual homage only amplifies the show’s more subversive deviations from the structure and ethos of Ru Paul's Drag Race. From its start-line call of ‘May the best woman win!’, RuPaul’s contest is anchored in a drag which theatricalises a particularly patriarchal vision of femininity, generally equating ‘successful’ drag with ‘convincing’ gender performance. High-femme makeup and hypersexual bodysuits abound, and presentations which deviate from conventional female beauty tend to fall to the sidelines (a dynamic intensified for the show’s non-white contestants, who find themselves inherently handicapped in the stale hierarchy of Western beauty standards). HDR, in contrast, seems rarely concerned with presented ‘gender’ at all. In the judging of challenges, no discernible preference is awarded to more conventional expressions of ‘femininity’; if anything, more creatively subversive or theatrically monstrous offerings – the androgynous horror of Season 3’s Anoche or the high-camp shapeshifting of Season 2 winner Elvira Pribludnaya - tend to win out over the ‘fishy’ drag favoured by RPDR. In light of RuPaul’s much-criticised reluctance to allow trans women to compete (for which he has since apologised ), HDR’s fluid kaleidoscope of bio-queens and drag kings feels like a gauntlet throw to its US counterpart. Despite its name, the sum of the project’s motley parts lands somewhere closer the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, a series aimed at reclaiming the liberation and subversion that first characterised drag as a form of protest.
In this sense, Home Drag Race’s underground origins don’t stifle the show’s expression so much as amplify its surprisingly biting cultural commentary. After all, the unabashedly trashy aesthetic is not a necessary symptom of the series’ humble budget - given that RuBitch’s outfits are literally superimposed onto her stick-figure body, the choice to adorn the host in a scruffy work jacket and plastic shopping bags reveals a tongue planted firmly in-cheek, subverting the increasingly high-budget maximalism expected of the Drag Race format. The reclamation of ‘trash’ is liberating, a middle-finger to the capitalist lens measuring success in material polish. For the underground and underfunded queens of the post-Soviet world, this vindication is doubly vital. Home Drag Race is not poised to emulate RuPaul’s polish so much as to demonstrate that the home-grown, bedroom drag of Russia’s undiscovered divas is as dynamic and accomplished as that of their US counterparts. In the process, national stereotypes are lampshaded and parodied with glee, taking the popular imaginary of ‘those scary Russians’ and reversing the direction of appropriation. Images of the sultry Russian temptress and stone-faced Soviet spinster have long been among the most popular in American drag, and Russia’s queens are well-aware of the unsettling effect their nation has on Western observers. As such, when HDR’s racers parade haute-couture in front of looming Soviet apartment blocks or lip-sync in Russian folk regalia, the mystique and mystery such symbolism evokes in the Western imagination becomes a source of power, previously derogatory stereotypes displayed like war-paint against a world primed to deride the ‘backwardness’ of post-Soviet existence.
Outside the pages of VKontakte, back in the modest drag bars of Moscow and St Petersburg, the wait for Drag Race Russia continues. But, in the meantime, the nation’s enterprising queer community has birthed something far more interesting. HDR will never be RuPaul’s Drag Race, but more importantly, it doesn’t try to be. It has retained a sense of bite, a disdain for rules and expectations imposed upon its art, that the ever-more mainstream Drag Race brand seems to have let slip into a sea of lucrative sponsorships and merchandising dynasties. As another season of polished American queens prepare for the starting line, perhaps RuPaul’s Drag Race could take a few notes.
Matt Walker is currently teaching English in Kyiv. He is passionate about clothing with Cyrillic on it, Björk, and diet cherry Pepsi. When not making avant-garde prawn-films (try and find that one on YouTube), he can be found trying to find language conversation partners by looking enigmatic in edgy coffee shops. His interest in queer post-soviet aesthetics was sparked during his year abroad, which he spent 'studying' on exchange in St Petersburg.
Get a Taste of Home Drag Race below:
[Note: Most videos have no subtitles - so if you don't speak Russian you'll need to either hop on Duolingo, or buckle in for a deeply confusing, yet somehow still enjoyable ride]